You know what I can’t stand? It’s people who don’t dress up for church. Have they no respect? Don’t they want to show God that they take this seriously? What’s the deal with showing up to church dressed like you would anywhere else?
Of course those people are just as bad as the people who dress up for church. What’s the deal with showing up to church dressed better than you would for anything else? Who do these people think they are? Showing off just how holy they are. Prideful, that’s what they are.
I also don’t like people who enjoy contemporary Christian music. You think you’re reaching people with God’s message just because it can be played on a guitar (or a ukulele)? I don’t understand people who cheapen the faith like that.
And then don’t get me started on the people who prefer traditional hymns. No wonder the church is shrinking. These people need to get with the time, their stubborn insistence on songs written 100 years ago by some dead white guy isn’t keeping the church relevant.
Or what about Christians who drink? How can they poison their bodies like that? Don’t they know that the body is a temple and that alcohol has caused serious abuses in society? What kinds of Christians are these exactly?
The same with Christians who abstain from drinking—what is the matter with these people? Don’t they know that even Jesus turned water into wine and that their attitude doesn’t embrace the joy that Christian faith is meant to bring? Why are Christians like that such killjoys?
I’ve even heard that some churches have members in them who have had premarital sex, or have been divorced, or ever had an abortion. I don’t understand what the point is in having church if we’re not going to insist that everyone be as pure as possible.
And then there are those churches that believe that everyone should be a virgin when you’re married, should never get divorced, or ever even contemplate an abortion. What kind of strange understanding of human sexuality is that? Don’t these people understand anything about sexuality, or relationships, or bodily integrity? What kind of church has a moral code that has nothing to do with how people actually live?
II. THE TROUBLE WE’RE IN
Is that portrait familiar? That portrait of judgmental, intolerant Christianity? It’s probably familiar to a lot of people.
In fact, only twenty percent of people outside the church view the church as a place that “accept and love people unconditionally, regardless of how people look or what they do.” People outside the church are likely to view Christians the way one 25 year old did who said:
“Christians talk about hating sin and loving sinners, but the way they go about things, they might as well call it what it is. They hate the sin and the sinner.”
This perception of the church is everywhere visible. Even in the most recent episode of Glee, Kurt rejected the notion that he should go to church since “most churches aren’t very welcoming” if you’re gay.
You can encounter this attitude right on campus, too. Much of the atheist literature on campus is framed around this idea. Christians talk about love, but they don’t live it—that shows the folly of their whole belief.
People avoid our churches because they feel they will be judged for all manner of things: for how they dress, for tattoos or piercings, for their past experiences, for their politics, their race, you name it. And often, they feel they’ll be judged for how they think.
Because intolerance comes hand in hand with judgmentalism. Condemning people for believing something other than what we think is a long standing tradition. And one that the world is, sadly, well aware of.
Some years ago, for our Monthly Movie with the Methodists, we screened Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was shown largely as a study break and we did not expect a serious discussion following the film. But we had a discussion nonetheless. The conversation ranged over a wide array of topics, including the subtleties of British culture and the divine right of kings. By the end of the evening, there were four people left: one of the members of our community, a young man and his girlfriend, and me. The young man had his hair colored and spiked in a Mohawk. He had a number of piercings and was wearing other punk clothing. This part of the conversation was by far the most interesting, but also the most heartbreaking.
Because he kept saying things like, “You Christians all think that people who don’t agree with you are going to hell” and “You Christians don’t like anyone who isn’t also a Christian” or “You think that all the people who belong to different religions are going to hell” and so on. I kept having to say, “I don’t think that way.” And every time I did, he showed some measure of surprise, especially when he was going to use the generalization to make his point.
I asked him at one point how he’d come to this conclusion about Christians, and this was the saddest point of all. He’d grown up in the church. He’d seen this attitude every day by the good Christian folk around him. It had never occurred to him (or likely them) that there was any other way a Christian could be. And so he walked away altogether. One of my prouder moments in this job was when he would in later days and years flag me down on the quad and ask how the Methodists were doing or when we were showing other films. He never joined our fellowship and I never expected him to. But, we’d been able to give him a glimpse of a Christianity that wasn’t judgmental or intolerant. And it had been welcome.
But the sad fact was communicated to me through that encounter that Christians are all too often the source of their own bad press.
Some of the worst stereotypes of judgmentalism and intolerance come from us. These are not caricatures from the movie Saved! or even the musings of Hollywood writers. These portraits are all too real. The fact that most Christians believe they are welcoming and tolerant does not change that for nearly 80% of the populace, the church is not perceived as judgmental, intolerant, and with an attitude of superiority. It should be pointed out that 53% of Christians between 16 and 29 agree.
In fact it may be that Christians often have an attitude of superiority because we assume that we know better than other people. Other people are wrong and we have the Truth. (We even spell it with a capital ‘T’). Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that is true—that Christians are right and everyone else is wrong. Let us leave aside for the moment the question of which Christians are we talking about (we’ll deal with that when we come to #8. Divisiveness). Let us distill it down to one essential truth: Jesus Christ is the source of our salvation. Let’s say that’s the thing that all of us Christians are right about and everyone else is wrong about. Great we know that. Good for us.
Except for one thing: we are not saved by what we know. We are not even saved by what we believe. We are not saved by what we do. We are saved by grace.
And it’s a good thing, too. Because none of us could ever merit salvation on our own. This is what the Psalmist is saying: “No one is righteous before you.” What did we do to deserve the short, mortal life we enjoy now? Nothing. Then what could we possibly do to merit eternal life? Don’t bother trying to figure it out; the answer is still nothing. Our eternal fates are in the hands of God, who though just, is a God of mercy, not of judgment.
How many of Jesus’ parables reflect the fact that we are to live out our understandings of God and the Kingdom with respect to one another? If we expect mercy, show mercy. If we expect grace, show grace.
But, see, here’s the hardest part of it all. We’re not really good at relying on grace. That seems awfully fishy to us. Just trusting in God? Well, surely there must be some objective standard. There must be a list, a set of beliefs or practices, something that will give us a way to know for certain that we’ve been saved. And it’s so much easier to believe that you’re on the inside, that you’ve been saved if you can make lists of all those who haven’t made it.
On some level, our judgmentalism and intolerance come from a place of deep spiritual insecurity. It’s not enough to know that we have made it; we need to know that other people haven’t. This makes us feel a little better about ourselves.
But just as we are not saved by our works, or our beliefs, or our knowledge, we are also not saved by the failure of our neighbors. In fact, we are all dependent upon the grace of a loving and merciful God.
That is something that should inspire in us a little humility. Something that can come in handy as Christians.
IV. THE WAY OUT
Because a dose of humility goes a long way to undoing intolerance and judgmentalism.
It is fascinating to me how much Christians judge people for their beliefs, as if the things we believed were self-evident. But very few people outside the church are convinced by an argument that gives as its main reason: “because it’s in the Bible!”
And what’s worse is that we often become more judgmental about the issues that don’t really matter, that aren’t really central. We fight over ideas that are not at the heart of the Gospel. In fact, it was out of a recognition of this kind of fighting that Wesley enjoined the early Methodists to exercise “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.” Wesley, who saw so much of theological disagreement as matters of “opinion” wanted Christians to lay aside those disagreements in favor of an ethic of charity to all. This was done out of a humble belief that so much of what we believe is simply opinion—how we are inclined to see the world, not an accurate reflection of it.
Humility also requires us to recognize that only God is the perfect judge. Only God has all the facts. One of the brilliant things about the movie Crash a few years ago was how the film played on people’s judgments about the characters and then flipped them on their heads when new data came to light. There is always something we don’t know about someone. If you doubt that, just think about your own life. When we are inclined to judge another for their choices, there are undoubtedly choices that we have made, things we have done that no one else knows about, and we’re glad about that. For that reminds us that we are all of us in the same boat, and it reminds us that there is so much we do not know about each other. Even in the wickedest person there may be some glimmer of love and kindness that we have not seen. And so humility allows us to leave the ultimate judgment up to God and to confess that our judgments are, of necessity, limited.
Now, sometimes people will argue that we are required to judge one another. We are required to critique one another as Christians. We are required to separate from all that is ungodly. Or they will point out that there is often occasion for judgment: we shouldn’t hold rapists blameless, etc. or allow pedophiles to babysit our children. Nor should we tolerate racist beliefs or ideologies.
But this is a red-herring. Righteous judgment is not what Christians are being accused of. Righteous rejections of hateful philosophies as un-Christian or judgment in the promotion of justice is not what we’re being scorned for. We are being scorned for self-righteous judgment. For claiming the ability to judge when we lack it. For claiming a moral high ground or closer proximity to God when we cannot know what is in another person’s heart. For seeking not to help other Christians in their accountability through love and support, but to demonstrate our own superiority through judgment and condemnation.
This is the behavior for which the Christian is rightly scorned. For it is not the behavior of Jesus. It is not the way of the Christ whom we follow.
In the end, all of this is about how we testify to our faith. How do we testify to the Christ we know and by whose grace we are saved? If we truly believe that the world does not know Jesus the way we do, then how on earth will everyone else come to know Jesus if we continue acting like a bunch of obnoxious, self-righteous, judgmental idiots? (Oh, that sounded kind of judgmental, didn’t it?) This is James’ point in his epistle when he asks if by being partial and judging his audience can really be disciples of Christ. How on earth will we make Christ known if the only evidence they see of him is in us, and that evidence is full of judgment and intolerance?
Because we very often get the God we go looking for. And when we find a God who’s judgmental and intolerant, that’s not only the God we find, it’s the God the world sees through us.
The world is tired of a judgmental, angry God. And so ought we be as well. As we noted last week, there are a number of portraits of God and of the Christian message that are very difficult to reconcile with the idea of “Good News”. In fact, the radical nature of the Gospel is that God does not in fact behave like we do. God is not bound to our prejudices, our pettiness, even our sense of what’s fair. God is sovereign and holy, just and righteous, but above all merciful and loving. A God of grace.
One contemporary theologian has wondered what it would look like if Christians actually acted like they believed what they claimed to believe. Imagine what it would look like if differences were addressed with embracing diversity and disagreements addressed with love rather than judgment. If our actions were met with loving support rather than rejection. The implication of all of this is that the world itself would be transformed by those living out such a faith.
We in this community can at least aspire to a more modest goal in the short term. We can commit to being a community wherein God’s grace is not simply talked about but shared and lived out.
We commit to this: that if you are one who has felt judged by a Christian church, in this community you will find welcome. If you are one who was told you didn’t belong, because of your look, your beliefs, your history, your politics, your identity, you belong in this community.
No one is perfect, no one is completely able to be free of judgmentalism or intolerance. We all have our moments when our human frailties are exposed. But it is precisely the awareness of those limitations that should inspire in us all the more awe and wonder for a God who loves us in spite of our failings. In spite of all we fail to be, we are offered grace.
But we can live out our faith by incarnating Christ for the world. By being the body of Christ in the world, the Christ who welcomed all, loved all, and met us with mercy and not judgment. As we celebrate that grace, we in turn offer that grace to all, so that through us, all might see the God we proclaim.
Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness; answer me in your righteousness. Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.
For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead. Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled.
I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
 David Kinnaman, UnChristian, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2008, p. 185.
 Ibid., p. 181.
 Ibid., p. 183.